Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan About five thousand people attend the 3rd annual Suwanee Beer Fest at the Suwanee Town Center Park on Saturday. Locals got to try samples from over 100 breweries, food vendors as well as listen to live music.
SUWANEE -- Business is good.
The lines both inside and outside of Suwanee's Town Center were long Saturday, an estimated 5,000 people donning St. Patrick's Day greens and pretzel necklaces to crowd through the gates. In irreproachable 75-degree weather, they waited to get into the third-annual Suwanee American Craft Beer Fest, then waited to sample from more than 300 beers from more than 100 of the country's finest breweries.
"It's a great opportunity to try beers that you normally don't see at your local bar," Lawrenceville resident Nick Mullins said. "The line was a little long but it was worth it once we got in."
Said Allison Leake, who made the drive from Athens: "It's great to come to a festival like this and be able to taste all the flavors that come into the beer, and all the love that goes into the beer-making."
The turnout -- marking two straight years of about a 1,500-person increase in attendance -- can be partly attributed to the so-called "craft beer renaissance," a national growth in appreciation for the more refined beers produced by smaller breweries.
Curtis Stockwell owns The Growler Store, which has been selling reusable jugs ("growlers") of craft and exotic beers in Suwanee since August. The main sponsor for Saturday's event, his store's 20-tap booth had the largest crowd of the day, with four or five lines often 50 deep.
"It's a good time to be in craft beer right now," Stockwell said with a grin.
Craft beer brewers are, by definition, small, independent and innovative.
They produce fewer than 6 million barrels of beer annually (for reference, Anheuser-Busch produces more than 100 million barrels every year). They are, by rule, majority owned by the actual brewers and not backed by one of the industry big boys. They, according to the Brewers Association, "interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent."
All that means there's a focus on producing some darn fine beer. That's why the craft movement is becoming so popular -- why thousands of people, young and old, swarmed around the Suwanee Town Green Saturday.
Matt Simpson is a nationally known beer expert based in Marietta. He's the owner of The Beer Sommelier LLC and operates TheBeerExpert.com.
"The simple answer is because craft beer tastes good. It's that simple," Simpson said. "There's a multitude of styles and substyles, dozens of malts and yeasts and hops, leaving an almost infinite canvas on which a craft beer can be created. And that's before extraneous conditioning (like the addition of coffee and chocolate)."
"You can choose something that matches your flavor profile much closer than would a fizzy yellow lager," he added. "Which is what's been perpetuated as being real beer here in the United States for the last 40 years."
The craft beer renaissance is a national thing -- with the market share of craft breweries creeping up by 1 and 2 percent annually in recent years -- but it's growing locally too.
In just the last four years or so, Gwinnett County has gone from: zero craft beer festivals to four (in Suwanee, Grayson and Duluth, and a mini one in Norcross); zero "growler" stores to at least three (in Suwanee, Duluth and Lawrenceville); and few restaurants offering more than the typical Buds and Millers to several.
Generally speaking, all have flourished.
"People are looking for a higher-end product, something with more flavor," Stockwell said. "You can buy a Bud Light for $4 or you can buy a craft beer for $5. When you get that craft beer you can really taste the difference, it's so much more complex, there's more going on."
"I think (the growth) is just people realizing that there are better options out there."
Growth in Gwinnett is the arm of a trend that's been brewing in Atlanta for the better part of 20 years. Though the conditions aren't exactly ideal (state laws can hamper several things for local brewers, especially through restrictions on self distribution), a few good breweries like Sweetwater, Red Brick, Atlanta Brewing Company and Dogwood (now defunct) have brought their craftsmanship to the local market.
An exact turning point in Gwinnett is hard to find, but it's not difficult to figure out what took so long.
"The people who are out in the suburbs, they aren't visiting the trendy bars, not as frequently anyway," Simpson said. "They're not necessarily taking the tours at the local breweries, they're not receiving the newspaper or newsletters from the people who would be disseminating that information."
Gail Moore has lived in Gwinnett for 17 years. She's the director for Grayson's Blues and Brews Festival, which is in its fourth year, and said there has been undeniable growth in the county's beer culture.
Moore credits Atlanta-based Sweetwater and Athens-based Terrapin with helping flood the local market with more unique beer experiences, and said Gwinnett's restaurants are starting to catch on. Her festival, which was the first in the county and typically draws about 1,000 people, is more about quality over quantity.
"We have found that most of our festival attendees are NOT there for an all-you-can-drink experience, they sincerely come to try something new," Moore said.
The city of Duluth will have its first ever craft beer festival, with more than 300 brews scheduled to be on tap, in June.
"Beer has always been a big part of bringing people together," event coordinator Brian Bentley said. "People want that experience, they want to be able to try something new, try something a little different."
Even if it means waiting in line.